Something for the weekend : Prosciutto

The Romans were familiar with the secrets of producing a fine ham; they knew that the low humidity, gentle breeze and the climate near the Northern Italian Alps was ideal for meat preservation. Even before them, the Etruscans believed these conditions to be so perfect that they actually improved the quality of the meat itself.

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But it was actually the Gauls who refined the process and it is their legacy that continues today in the traditional processes of producing a prosciutto crudo, a fine delicacy that is held in high regard by the Italian people. To this day, very little has changed in the process of taking a raw haunch and turning it into a delicious ham.

The air-dried hindquarters of a pig have been treasured since ancient times, with the Italian word for ham, prosciutto, deriving from the Latin perexsuctus, which means ‘deprived of liquid’; however, some experts say the word comes from the Italian verb prosciugare (to drain).

For years connoisseurs of good food have always considered ham to be the best part of the pig and debates still remain unresolved about which of Italy’s two most famous hams, Prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham) and Prosciutto di San Daniele, is the best. Both of these famous hams are registered DOP Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (Protected Designation of Origin) products and have had this protected status for many years; to retain this accolade, they must continue to meet stringent standards and must be produced within a strict geographic area dictated solely by the European Union.

Prosciutto di Parma

To qualify to become a Parma ham, the hind thigh must come from a nine-month old pig bred in one of the eleven EU-stipulated regions and weighing no less than 150kg. The pig must have been fed a carefully regulated diet of cereal, grain and, importantly, whey that has been produced during the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan) cheese.

The legs are trimmed and marked with a certification of authenticity before being sent to one of the traditional curing houses that centre around Langhirano, in the Parma region.

Salt is the only ingredient used during the curing of Parma ham and the use of any chemicals is forbidden. After the first salting, the ham is stored inside a chilling chamber with an 80% humidity and hung for 7 days; following this, the ham receives a second salting and then is hung in a drying chamber where it loses around 4 percent of its weight.

Eighteen days later, the ham ‘rests’ at 75% humidity in a cold room for a further 70 days before being washed to remove the salt and then hung in vast rooms on specially manufactured wooden frames called scalere. After a further three months of being subjected to aromatic natural breezes, the hams are slathered with sugna, a mixture of lard, salt and pepper to prevent drying too rapidly, and, after a seven-month period, the ham is tested with a porous needle carved from the leg bone of a horse to determine its maturity. Once a twelve-month period has elapsed and the ham has reduced its weight by a third, it is then eligible to receive its Ducal Crown stamp of authenticity.

Prosciutto di San Daniele

This premium ham has been produced for centuries in San Daniele and Sauris in Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s northern-eastern region around Udine. The salty, sweet ham differs from Parma ham, which only uses the thigh, by using the whole leg including the trotter.

The small black pigs that are fed a diet high in acorns, which experts say gives it its unique flavor, are specially reared in San Daniele to produce short plump hindquarters rather than wide, fat ones.

The process of curing is similar to that of Parma ham, but less salt is used to produce a redder, sweeter tasting ham, which, according to some prosciutto aficionados, when acquainted with the higher altitude and drier air, produces a superior quality product to the Parma ham. But in truth it really is all down to individual taste.

Every Italian region produces its own prosciutto, and whether you’re eating a salty Tuscan, prosciutto toscano, or a non-salty Umbrian, prosciutto di Norcia, you can guarantee that the quality and flavour will have been well worth taking time to produce.

 

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The Food and Flavours of Cossignano

The restaurant and cafe Castello de Marte, or “Castle Of Mars”, is located in the main square of the beautifully preserved, historic medieval walled town of Cossignano, ten minutes from the Adriatic coast.

Cossignano’s hilltop position  dominates the countryside providing breathtaking views over the “Piceno” as this picturesque area of central Italy is known.

Operating as a tavern since the early 1950s, Castello de Marte was carefully restored in 2003. The original building dates from the 15C and the sensitive restoration retains the historic architectural character, while charming decorative touches provide personality and add to the warm and relaxed atmosphere.

Lunch in the evocative dinning room, take an aperitivi in the bar or dine on the tiled, colonnaded terrace overlooking the Renaissance square, whatever you chose you are guaranteed a warm welcome and an experience to remember.

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Menu Complete: 28€ 

Antipasta * Primo * Secondo * Salad * Dolce

including

Mineral Water * Coffee * House Wine

Typical menu

Antipasta: (appetizers) 13€

Local cheeses, cured hams, salami, melon, rocket salad, grilled aubergine, fried courgette and olive ascolane “fecandò”  (a surpise from le marche)

Primo: (pasta) 7€

Homemade tagliatelle with mushrooms porcini or tomato ragù 

Secondo: (main course) 12€

  • A traditional assortment of grilled meats “grigliata mista”
  • Italian sliced beef “tagliata” 
  • served with, rocket salad, parmesan cheese, tomato salad or mixed salad 

Dolce: (Dessert) 3 €

Homemade tiramisù  

Opportunity to Meet Italian Artisan Producers

Pinocchio Restaurant in Ranelagh, Dublin will once again play host this Thursday June 19th to a diverse group of Italian artisan food producers.

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Companies large and small from the province of Pesaro & Urbino in the Marche district of Italy have flown in especially for the event in the hope of meeting Irish restaurateurs, food and wine importers and chefs.

The Flavour of Italy Group, owners of Pinocchio Restaurant, have co-ordinated the attendance of more than a dozen producers in collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce of Pesaro and Urbino. These producers will showcase everything from olive oils, to honeys, meats, pastas, truffles, wines and much, much more.

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The organisers are very eager for the owners, managers, food and wine importers and chefs of restaurants to come along, but everyone involved in the food and wine industry is welcome and the event is completely free to attend. Some inspirational food based on the traditions of the region will be served throughout the day and the event runs from 10am to 5pm.

The opportunity to meet with producers and discuss and taste their products is a unique one so the organisers are hoping for a good turnout. So, ci vediamo presto!

The good things in life

the perfect meal, fresh and in season

Often translated as “the Marches,” this Central Italian region has it all. Pristine beaches and rugged shorelines hug the sapphire-blue Adriatic. Rolling hills lie covered with vines and olive groves. There are well-preserved medieval towns and cultural centers, wonderful cuisine and great wines.

Urbino

Urbino

Perched on a steep hilltop, Urbino, whose historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site, is Le Marche’s most celebrated city.

A cradle of the Renaissance, Urbino rivals even the most famous towns in Tuscany and Umbria for its grandiose architecture, rich history and impressive art collections. 

Many of Urbino’s elaborate stone buildings were constructed in the mid- to late-1400s under the rule of Duke Federico da Montefeltro, one of the 15th century’s most dedicated patrons of the arts. 

During his reign, Urbino was one of Europe’s greatest cultural centers. Visiting scholars, painters and poets would stay at Federico’s magnificent Palazzo Ducale, now home to Le Marche’s national art gallery. 

Renaissance name-dropping here can bring art historians to their knees. Sandro Botticelli designed the intricate inlaid woodwork decorating the Duke’s private study. Among the masterpieces housed in the gallery are Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ as well as works by Raphael and Titian (known in Italy as Tiziano Vecellio). 

But Urbino’s Renaissance connection goes deeper than one palazzo. Leonardo da Vinci planned the 15th-century reconstruction of the city’s original Roman walls. In 1483, Raphael was born here. Visitors to the artist’s home can see a fresco that he painted at age 14. 

Urbino is just a short ride from Acqualagna, which shares the title of Italy’s white truffle capital with the town of Alba in Piedmont. Set inside Acqualagna’s Gola del Furlo Nature Reserve, Antico Furlo is celebrated for its truffle-based dishes and other locally sourced ingredients, including mushrooms from the nearby Apennines.

Urbino’s Wines

The local wine is the generally simple and quaffable Colli Pesaresi. Most common is a light, fruity red made predominantly from Sangiovese. 

In Pesaro, Fattoria Mancini makes wines with greater elegance and depth, like its Colli Pesaresi Focara, a red made using Pinot Noir propagated from vines originally planted in the area during the Napoleonic administration in the early 1800s. 

Mancini, whose spectacular vineyards overlook the Adriatic, also makes a Colli Pesaresi Roncaglia, a white blend of the native Albanella with Pinot Noir.

But, according to Alberto Melagrana, chef and owner of the Antico Furlo restaurant, the best wine to pair with the local white truffle dishes is Verdicchio.

“Contrary to popular belief, structured white wines pair better with truffles than reds,” he says. “A full-bodied 2 or 3-year old Verdicchio that’s been aged in casks and has good alcohol content is the best.”

Jesi

Jesi

Nestled between mountains and the sea, Jesi is home to one of Italy’s greatest white wines, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi.

Though there are no vineyards in the city itself, Jesi is the ideal starting point to tour the surrounding wine country. It’s also not too far from the smaller Verdicchio di Matelica denomination. 

“In the last few years, Verdicchio has received more awards and mentions from the Italian wine guides than any other white wine in Italy,” says Alberto Mazzoni, director of the Istituto Marchigiano di Tutela Vini, the region’s largest growers’ union.

During the 1960s, a cheap, cheerful version of Verdicchio was one of Italy’s best-selling white wines both domestically and in major export markets like the U.S. 

But by the 1970s, quality nosedived as large firms churned out industrial quantities to satisfy demand. 

Verdicchio’s newfound respect is the result of massive investments in the vineyards and improved winemaking. 

“In 1983, when I began bottling my production, I cut yields down to half of what the production code stipulates,” says Ampelio Bucci, one of the leaders of Verdicchio’s renaissance. “And instead of planting new vines or international grapes, I decided to work with old Verdicchio vines.” 

Aged in large Slavonian casks, Bucci’s full-bodied, complex and mineral-driven wines, especially his Riserva, soon caught the attention of wine critics and connoisseurs worldwide. 

Encouraged, other producers started focusing on quality over quantity. These days, Verdicchio quality has never been better.

Besides acting as the gateway to Verdicchio, Jesi’s maze of cobbled streets and ancient buildings are worth a visit. Leave the industrial sprawl below and go directly to the walled medieval center, the birthplace of Frederick II, one of the Middle Age’s most powerful Holy Roman Emperors. 

The Palazzo Pianetti is a must see, noted for its rich collection of artwork, including those by 16th-century artist Lorenzo Lotto. Jesi also hosts the Enoteca Regionale, which carries more than 400 Marche labels, making it an ideal introduction to the region’s dynamic wine scene. 

Just a short drive away in the seaside town of Senigallia is Uliassi, recipient of two Michelin stars. Chef Mauro Uliassi serves creative interpretations of local seafood specialties like smoked spaghetti with clams and grilled cherry tomatoes. 

Jesi’s Wines

One of Italy’s premier white wines, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi features peach and almond flavors brightened by crisp acidity. Riservas, aged longer prior to release, offer moderate cellaring potential, up to several years. Top estates include Villa Bucci, Umani Ronchi and Garofoli.

In the Verdicchio di Matelica region, higher altitudes and a closed valley create a cooler microclimate than in the Jesi denomination, yielding wines with intense aromas, brisk acidity and marked mineral accents. Collestefano is one of the area’s rising stars.

ConeroRiviera

Conero Riviera

Le Marche’s most beautiful beaches are situated inside the stunning Conero Natural Park. Even though these seaside resorts draw crowds in July and August, you’ll have the beaches pretty much to yourself in May, June and September. Some of the more isolated and hard-to-reach beaches are never crowded, even during peak season.

One of the most seductive spots along this strip of the Adriatic coast is Portonovo, once a simple fishing village. Located at the foot of Monte Conero, Portonovo’s white pebbly beaches, rocky shorelines and luminous green bay are set against a backdrop of the park’s woods and dense Mediterranean brush.

Just between the beach and park are two small salt lakes that attract rare birds and other species that thrive in the pristine reserve. After soaking up the sunshine and swimming in the crystal clear waters, take a short walk to the ancient church of Santa Maria di Portonovo.

Surrounded by old, twisted olive trees, the church overlooks the bay. Built by Benedictine monks in the 11th century, the perfectly preserved structure is a jewel of ­Romanesque architecture.

For a delicious meal on the beach, try Clandestino, a sushi bar and casual restaurant that’s operated by star chef Moreno Cedroni. His main restaurant in Senigallia has received two Michelin stars.

Mezzavalle and Le Due Sorelle are two nearby destinations. From Portonovo, Mezzavalle is a 15-minute walk along a steep, rugged footpath, making it a haven for sea ­lovers and hikers looking for unspoiled beaches. Another wild, pristine beach, Le Due Sorelle is accessible only by boat.

Heading away from the shore, Monte Conero offers numerous walking and mountain bike paths of varying levels of difficulty, offering stunning views of the sparkling sea below.

Conero’s Wines

Monte Conero is home to Rosso Conero, a robust red wine that must be made from a minimum of 85% Montepulciano and a maximum of 15% Sangiovese. Most producers use exclusively Montepulciano. 

With its fruity sensations of black cherries and raspberries, Rosso Conero is usually best enjoyed in its youth, especially if it hasn’t been aged in wood. 

More structured wines from the Conero Riserva DOCG are usually best after four or five years. 

Two producers to seek out are Moroder and Fattoria Le Terrazze.

Ascoli

Ascoli Piceno

In the south of Le Marche, near the region’s border with Abruzzo, Ascoli Piceno is one of Italy’s little-known jewels.

The striking city center is made entirely of travertine, an ivory-colored stone that’s been used here since Roman times, first to construct dwellings and temples, and later, churches, palaces and municipal buildings. 

Even the pavement tiles in the city’s main square, the Piazza del Popolo, are made of travertine. Any visit to Ascoli Piceno should begin here, at the beating heart of the city. 

Flanked by the imposing gothic Church of San Francesco, the 13th-century Captain’s Palace and the 16th-century vaulted Merchant’s Lodge, the piazza seems to glow when the light hits a certain way. 

Many residents still walk in the square each evening to catch up with neighbors and friends, a custom now abandoned in most Italian cities. 

Stop in at Caffè Meletti, located in one corner of the square, for pastry and an espresso in the morning or an aperitivo in the evening. Its Liberty-style architecture is a nod to Old World refinement and charm. 

The recently reopened restaurant on the top floor serves delicious, creative interpretations of traditional cuisine, including olive all’Ascolana—fried olives stuffed with a mixture of meat, Parmesan cheese, vegetables and herbs. 

This delicacy is made with the Tenera Ascolana olive variety, which, as the name suggests, are tender and fleshy. The local olive oils are among the best in Italy. 

Walking is the best way to visit the city and take in the numerous Romanesque churches and medieval towers. In Piazza Arringo, stop at the Cathedral of Saint Emidio, named after the city’s patron saint and, according to local legend, protector against earthquakes. Inside, marvel at the intricately frescoed ceilings and vaulted crypt. 

Outside of the town center, visit the Malatesta Fortress and the Cecco Bridge, as well as the temple of Sant’Emidio alle Grotte, built into the hillside.

Ascoli’s Wines

Ascoli Piceno is in the Rosso Piceno denomination, which spans 120 towns in four provinces. Given the vast territory and the flexible blending regulations (varying amounts of Montepulciano, Sangiovese and other varieties), this red wine generally lacks identity and also has variable quality levels. 

One of the estates making good Rosso Piceno is Le Caniette. Rosso Piceno Superiore hails only from the Ascoli province, which local producers maintain has the best growing conditions. 

Yet, the most interesting wines from the undulating hills around Ascoli Piceno are white, especially the small production of Offida Pecorino DOCG. 

Nearly extinct in the early 1980s, the Pecorino grape was saved by local winemaker Guido Cocci Grifoni, who, after years of experimentation, made his first vintage of 100% Pecorino in 1990.

Because of its intense floral aromas of acacia and jasmine, rich white-fruit flavors, creamy texture and mineral notes, more wineries are now producing this fascinating wine, which pairs well with fish and white meats.

Top estates include Cocci Grifoni and Ciù Ciù.